On exhibits

It takes a lot of effort and not a little artifice to maintain a sense of reality at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
By Arthur O. Murray

First, do no harm.

Steve Harvell lives by that motto on the job. Harvell, 54, isn’t a physician. He’s curator of exhibit design at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, in charge of maintaining what’s being displayed at the seven-story, 200,000-square-foot structure in Raleigh. He and six others must do much of the work while some of the 500,000 visitors the museum attracts each year are in the building.

The museum, with a staff of 120, budgets about $100,000 a year for supplies and equipment to keep up its exhibits. Performing that task can mean getting in a cherry picker to dust dangling whale bones or freshening up a coastal display with model birds suspended from nearly invisible wires on vine-wrapped trees. “In some cases, if you move a branch half an inch, you’ll break a wire. You have to be able to touch things and not break other things.”

Harvell, who has worked at the museum nearly 10 years, starts work at 7 a.m., two hours before it opens. Just turning on the lights means checking some 3,000 fixtures. He also makes sure the mechanical exhibits work and vets all the audio and visual equipment. Then he begins routine maintenance of the four floors open to the public. His nemesis is dust. Some exhibits are hardy enough that he can wipe them down with a cloth or use a vacuum cleaner. For others, he keeps paint brushes of varying sizes and stiffnesses. “I’ll flick the dust off and catch it in the air — we don’t want to just recycle it.” For the most delicate things, he uses a makeup brush.

Among items that need dusting are more than a million artificial leaves, which must be cleaned one at a time. It takes about a year to get around to everything. His crew also reglue broken pieces and repaint faded exhibits. Others require replacing. The $70.5 million building opened in April 2000, so, unlike some of the stuff on display, it’s still young. Harrell wants to keep it looking that way.

“The whole museum is like an ongoing work of art. It’s kind of like an old car. You want to go in and make sure it looks new again.”